A few people have pointed out this Pew poll that shows an inconsistent public. The public, for example, thinks the states should balance their budgets, just not by raising taxes or cutting spending.

Now, some people really might want the states to balance their budgets by magic. However, you don’t need that to get the results Pew finds.

Suppose that you have three people. Adam, who believes in cutting spending to balance the budget. Bill who believes in raising taxes to balance the budget and Chris who believes that state balanced budgets are a pro-cyclical economic destabilizer that should be alleviated by federal transfers, or as he likes to say, “lame.”

Now we are going to ask a few questions.

First we ask: Should the state stick to its balance budget requirement? Adam and Bill say yes. Chris says no. We confidently conclude that the public wants balanced budgets.

Second we ask: Should we cut spending? Adam says yes. Bill and Chris say no. We confidently conclude that the public doesn’t want to cut spending.

Third, we ask: Should we raise taxes? Adam and Chris say no. Bill says yes. We confidently conclude that the public doesn’t want to raise taxes.

But wait a minute! Is the public insane! How can we balance the budget if we don’t cut spending or raise taxes.

No the public as individuals are completely sane, but when aggregated into a whole they become irrational. And, importantly there is no clear way to make them rational, since each person is answering truthfully and with complete knowledge of the facts.

[We are going to leave out intensity scoring for now because its complicated and I don’t think it actually gets you what its proponents think it gets you]

This is one of the reasons why “the individual” is special level of organization. Trying to go below the individual, for example asking what kind of policy your parietal lobe wants, usually yields no meaningful answer. Going above the individual exposes you to this fundamental aggregation problem.

How the brain goes about solving this aggregation problem is still a mystery to us. If it feels like there are dozen distinct urges and desires pulling you in different directions, its because there are. Somehow, however, the brain integrates them into a surprisingly rational whole. As a society we don’t know how to do that.

One practical solution to this problem, employed by the founders of most modern democracies, was to create some form of deliberative legislature where people could hash out deals.

Sometimes these deals would include side payments. For example, Adam and Bill agree to build a bike ramp for Chris if he’ll vote for modest tax increases and modest spending cuts.

Today that type of deal making is under attack. Politicians are lambasted for voting against their party’s preferences. Side deals or pork are criticized as corrupt and immoral.

This is unfortunate because if Pew snapshot is correct, then a legislature that is purely faithful to its voters is a legislature inescapably bound by aggregate irrationality.